Boring bliss

On Instagram, I often post what I am cooking/eating and what I wear. I realize that social media is primarily used to show friend and stranger that life is exciting but one has to remember that one person’s boring might be another person’s rescue.

When moving to another country, or any other way one starts life from scratch really, I think it is vital to establish a routine first, the boring but dependable base of everyday life. Every single self-evident element of an established life all of sudden becomes this huge decision. Which bakery do I go to, where do I get my hair cut, how can I find a good route to jog? So finding that and fine-tuning it does already feel like a big deal. To be honest, the whole first two years you feel on shaky grounds – and you feel incredibly vulnerable.

Do not get me wrong. I am the adventure-seeking type, I will feel most comfortable on the path less trodden. But all things in good order, you need a bedroom in a house before you pack a bag to go camping in the wild.

So for me, posting what I eat and what I wear is a good sign, a sign of victory. Because even though I moved to my home country, I was not settled at all. And unwilling to discuss the gigantic elephant in the globe (my absent kids), coming home is less straightforward than you would think. Less of a coming home than you’d think. And just like in any other country, it took me all about short of two years to get back into my skin.

So next time you see me post my meal, or the dress I am wearing, remember: your boring is my rescue. It just might mean I am finally getting on top of things.

Face recognition

Judging by this title, you might expect an article on the progress we made in technology – and all the pending doom that goes with it. I hate to disappoint but I merely want to share that I have discovered something during this obnoxious pandemic aka global mask-craze.

I first started thinking about this when I realised I am having a tremendously hard time remembering my students’ names this year. It didn’t used to be this hard? Am I getting old? Did my brain give up? Colleagues were voicing similar experiences: it is hard to recognize, let alone remember, a person’s face when you only see half of it. And the half that you do see, is coronated by an untamed hairdo (yes, that was a far-fetched pun).

But I felt guilty about the whole name-thing: it does come across as disrespectful I find, but I am really trying! So I started googling. How do people remember faces? How do we categorize them? I won’t bore you with my search history but some of the articles were very interesting: how an infant’s survival depends on recognizing its mother, and how memorizing is different for everyone, how a dysfunctional temporal lobe might make it impossible to remember people… Don’t worry, I also did some online tests and I am fine. (Dr Google and I are old friends.)

But it got me thinking. In the past I have remarked that two people look alike when friends did not agree at all. At all! And then I realized: I categorize people by their mouth. Eyes too, but mouth first. Even more: I will attribute certain personality traits to a person based on his/her mouth, I will be attracted or even repelled by a mouth, I compare mouths. So a world inhabited by masked people constitutes hell to me.

It is completely and utterly useless information but there you go..

The best is yet to come

I have been quiet for a considerable time. That was a very conscious effort of course. Not only did I not want to share my private process but I am also very aware that someone else’s misery might not be the best read.

It has been more than a year, and as I suspected before I decided to stop writing, time changes a lot.

The beginning of 2020 was sheer hell. I cannot word it any other way. I hit a low of which I never suspected it even existed. Not in me, not in life. After everything that happened, I started questioning every single decision I ever made in my life. It came to the point that I became insecure – and yes, negative – about every single insignificant and unimportant silly decision you take in a day.  

Twenty-twenty was the year that I will always remember as the year when I contemplated if razorblades would be more effective than a rope. The year when I had my farewell note written. (What can you still say really? ‘Sorry, I give up?’ It turns out I am a practical person and it was full of passwords and pin-codes.)

I studied English literature and I read Hamlet’s famous words when I was told to. We analysed them and I got it. Then I started teaching English literature and I had to explain the exact line to young people. And I thought I got it. Only now did those words hit me like a freight train. When there is so much, just so – SO – much pain, that you think that the only way it can stop is to not be. To consciously and deliberately make the decision to stop being here, the only refuge to not feel, for just-a-freaking-second. You scream silently in your head: ‘please make it stop’ but it won’t. Because there is no way around it, no moment without pain, no pause, they are your children, you have no choice, you have to go through it. You are a person, a woman, a mother. In essence, you are and always will be a mother. So to not feel it, is to not be? And then you realize: I would not do it to me, I would do it to them.

I found a new dimension in the love for my own mother. The relentless and unconditional love she must have felt. Together with the indescribable pain she must have been consumed by. But she missed so much. She never saw her grandchildren. So a realisation dawned upon me: maybe the best is yet to come.

So slowly but surely I started climbing my own personal hill. The mountain that seemed insurmountable at first. Because even when you walk the streets of hell, you can decide to walk them with your head held high. So I enrolled in a second Masters. A useful and interesting degree of course, but also a metaphorical flipping the bird to everyone that needs to see it. On top of that, a friend became a training buddy, and I rediscovered my love for exercise, endorphins go a long way. Because every single decision I have made in my life was one that I stood behind 100 per cent the moment I made it. I know that now. I might have chosen some odd paths in my life, but boy did they have good scenery. I am glad I did what I did. Proud. It has been a hell of a ride, and I am sure it will be for years to come.

Coincidentally, the whole world is in crisis and so many people are struggling. Strange times of which everyone hopes they will be over soon.

It also has been a total mindfuck to be back in Belgium. I live in the village I grew up in. I have brunches and walks with old schoolmates. I teach in the school I went to myself. I study in the university I studied in twenty years ago. At times, it feels that everything I ran away from so many years ago, I am processing now. Once, I was standing outside in the rain and when I tasted the rain running from my face, I remembered a kiss in the rain from when I was 16. Having a good memory is a mindfuck as well. Both the good memories as the bad sensations can hit you like a tidal wave.

I also did not predict how much the teaching job would help me. The kindness and friendship from colleagues. The comfort I get from working with students my own kid’s age. Knowing that my mother and grandfather were teachers. The inspection report that ended with ‘you are a born teacher’. Just the overall gratification from it.

So I decided my radio silence is over. Here is me, at the age of (almost) 44, saying the best is yet to come.

Kafka

In times of Corona, I think it is safe to assume that we are all going through something new, a situation that we cannot possibly oversee correctly, and that this year is starting to feel like we are living in a Kafka-novel. For me, it only adds to the alien feeling I have been experiencing for about 9 months now.

You see, my children were kidnapped by their father in 2019 and despite all my legal, relentless and correct efforts to get them back and to get him to adhere to the same verdict we have lived by for a decade, I seem to wake up in this nightmare again and again since July 2019 and I am convinced I am reliving groundhog day. The girls went on holiday just like they have been doing for the last 10 years, three times a year but this time they never came back.

Every single part of this experience has been new to me – and every time I think I have reached a new definition of heartbreaking, I seem to find another one. And then there was the time were I realized: if I do not slit my wrists now, I never will. But I haven’t and I won’t because the one thing that keeps me going – that one day they will return to me – keeps me alive. Keeps me smiling even. The one thing that makes me hang on that cliff-side of despair, is also what makes me not fall in, what makes me strong and determined, I am sure every parent will know what I mean.

I am not trying to be dramatic. I am telling you this – the world basically – because I get questions about my girls (why are they not with me? why did I move to Belgium all of a sudden?) and I am reluctant to explain. Are you surprised when I tell you it is partly shame? How the f* could this happen to me? And yes, I see the looks of some: what on earth happened that he did this? I see the speculations in people’s eyes about my life abroad and the not so average life I have always led, unorthodox choices I have made but which I still stand by. I have also tried to spare the girls, let me not bombard them with adult issues they might not understand, let us not involve everyone we know. And then there is the roller-coaster of emotions you seem to find yourself on. Late nights using a whole box of tissues because of all the crying and blubbering, conversations with friends that give me courage.. I have been thrown between every single corner of the emotional spectrum and yes, I do feel battered and bruised because of it. The angel on the right shoulder whispering that I should spare the girls from complex emotions and not lay my sadness on them and the devil on the other shoulder replying I did not put them in this situation to begin with. You can imagine the scenarios. But what to do?

I will refrain myself from going into the legal stuff and explaining why this has not been resolved yet, partly because I have no clue but let me also just bite my tongue and limit myself to “Mexico is more corrupt than I thought” and “my ex has a deeper grudge than I ever thought possible”. But it does not serve me to dwell. I am using the proper channels and they appear not to be strong measures. I realize a lot in society is based on trust. Trust that I am loosing by the minute.

So there it is. My dirty laundry. My Achilles heel. My Godot I am waiting for. My Kafka.

Coming Home

Much to anyone’s surprise – most of all my own – I returned to my home country this year to settle down. Home country, what am I saying; I even moved back to my home town! It is a time warp if ever there was one but yes (to answer the question that I know is on your lips), it is still home.

Often I am worried that I insult people when I do not recognize them but you have to admit that people do change in the time span of two decades. To some I can honestly say they have not changed a bit but it has happened that I just did not recognize a person and when they – not very impressed at the time – tell me their name, I honestly went “OH MY GOD..!” Probably not flattering and I do feel guilty when it happens but when I encounter someone that is no longer the pimply scrawny pale guy with the pony tail from 20 years ago, it actually can be regarded as a compliment. (Try convincing them of that though..)

I often get asked if I will be able to adjust again. I am convinced I will. I can adapt almost anywhere so I can re-adjust at home, right? (I might be so incredibly wrong in this regard, I do not know yet, I will keep you posted.) If anything, I am happy and grateful this is home, life is pretty well-arranged here if you want it to be. Yes, I need to re-discover things but at least I can do it in my own language and I can ask people I know. No learning kiswahili, no trying to meet people. The funniest thing was getting used to recycling. I recycled in every country I lived in but it just works differently in every place. In Belgium, there are different colours containers and bags and I have actually gone as far as to take a picture of some garbage, sending the picture to the whatsapp family group, asking what goes in which bin. Garbage, not the sector or level I would have expected issues to be honest.

I am also asked on a regular basis when I will be leaving again. As it stands… I will not. Not many people believe me though. I never really plan life for longer than some years ahead, this is true, my biggest and only lifelong commitment are my children, but I am not sure I am up for a longterm and life-altering move again. Ask me again in some years. I do not consider myself a rolling stone. I don’t think. But who knows.

The one thing to coming home that is really weird, and the thing fellow expats had warned me about, is that I recognize the place and the people, and they recognize me, or so it seems, but I am not the same person and it is hard to explain in what way. So it feels very double to reminisce. This feeling is amplified for me personally because I am now teaching in the school where I went myself and walking the halls in a different role is confrontational to say the least.

The one thing that is not weird at all, but which I was prepared for as well, is that I am homesick for Africa, maybe even more than I had anticipated. I guess it is like longing for your childhood: it was great while it lasted but there is no going back because it just isn’t there anymore. Africa is, of course, but my African life isn’t: all my friends moved by now. (Give or take a few.) I will go back, for sure, but as it stand now, just for a holiday: soak up that golden sun, and smell those dusty plains. I guess you can take the girl out of the wild, but you cannot take the wild out of the girl.

Music

Since moving from one continent to the other was a big change, I am trying to experience as many new things with my girls as I possibly can. So when they asked if we could go to Lollapolooza – the 3 day music festival – I was quick in saying yes. Whether we spend a weekend in the Atacama desert or we go and listen to Lenny Kravitz and Post Malone in park in Santiago, it is all new to them so fine by me. I am already happy they are not anti-social, and have some interests besides spending time on their computer.

I have to say festivals have become quite a bit more expensive than when I was a teenager but I have to admit my last ticket purchase is quite a while ago. The atmosphere at the festival itself was very relaxed, it probably helps that it was an alcohol-free festival. I did walk in cloud of a secondhand weed smoke for the full time we were there though. Very chill indeed. Leave it to the Belgians to smuggle in booze though, resourcefulness translated in ziplock bags in bras and the likes. The girls did not spend one single minute with me by the way, we entered and like an arrow out of a bow, they were off. All the better. And they are now enthusiastic fans of twenty one pilots.

Another musical event that they were definitely not asking for but which I wanted them to try was an opera. The opera in Santiago is not only a very beautiful building, but for them to experience some Verdi seemed like an equally important cultural experience to me. If they then decide they are not fans, fine by me, but you have to try anything once, no? So we read the story of “La Fuerza del Destino” the day before (nothing worse than not being able to follow) and we dressed up the day itself and off we went.

I know that I am an incredible cry baby myself and I will tear up with a good book, movie – even with a good song for god’s sakes – but I did not exactly expect them to appreciate it quite the same way. We had watched ‘Pretty Woman’ on Netflix some days before and Vivian in the movie had been moved by opera as well so I was hoping they would be open to the idea.. When the second break came, the youngest said (in a very disappointed voice I must add): “another break? how long is this opera?” Sitting still for 3 hours did seem a tad long for her. They also made the very correct observation that the people with the expensive seats had dressed up but that people in the upper balconies had not, which I found an incredible pity. But I think my eldest daughter appreciated it. She is also the one that plays flute so maybe that had something to do with it.

Anyway. So they are two experiences richer. Both music but very different. I can but only offer, right?

Jouska

When I was a child, I had an imaginery friend. I am fully aware that I can pretend to say this in a very neutral tone of voice but it is a source of jokes – or at least some frowning. My brothers still tease me with this fact and my mother has admitted in the past she contemplated visiting a shrink with the child version of me. Why on earth a person with four siblings still feels the urge to invent another person is beyond me now but I vividly recall my friend, we had actual conversations in which I acted out both participants. (Okay so a shrink might not have been a bad idea.)

So imagine my relief (joy even) when I come across a word as “jouska”, which means as much as ‘playing out a hypothetical conversation in your head’. The word that acknowledges that sane adults talk to themselves.

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What a beautiful word. What a beautiful concept. What a beautiful realisation that I am not the only person doing this. I mean, if there is a word for it, it is common, no? I actually play out dialogues in my head so often, and so well of course, I have thought about a job as a writer for Netflix, because yes of course: I even imagine the looks, pauses, movements and setting too. Doesn’t everyone?

Lit

I have said this before but it still sometimes hits me as a surprise in an unexpected moment: it is enormously gratifying to do a great purge in your life. Since I was forced to fit my entire life into 2 suitcases, I went back to basics: I no longer dust pointless trinkets on the cupboard or re-arrange my closet when the season changes. I simply do not own enough. And as it so happens, we moved to a small apartment so I can get it clean in a reasonable amount of time and I do not mow a lawn. Thank god, because I never did that anyway but now I no longer have staff. (I do realize how that sounds but it is what it is.)

The nicest perk is that I found my way back to reading. I have always been an avid reader but ironically enough both a busy life and a lazy life kept me from it at times. Well, let us just admit excuses kept me from it because all you have to do is decide for yourself it is a priority and it becomes one. Since I leave Netflix to the girls, that trap is out of the way. And because I have my workouts in the morning, my lunch breaks and quiet evenings are my time to do what I want to de-stress. Thus I read.

I forgot how I can lose myself in a book, travel to a place, life in a time and meet people as though they actually exist. What is it they say? Reading is travelling without moving. (I forget where I heard it.) I also comfort myself with the thought that my attention span is not completely ruined by social media. I will gladly admit I am a word geek and I can become truly happy when I read a beautiful word or sentence – or as someone recently said, when an author uses “a hella of a line“.  Me happy – and jealous.

Another perk is that I recently re-discovered music. Obviously, I did not have to move to do that but one way or another my new life in the first world made it easier. I use Spotify when I walk to the subway. My workouts are accompanied by an appropriate soundtrack. I even put on some music when I do the dishes (yep, you guessed it, have not done those for years either). Strangely enough, we even listen to music in the office.  Last weekend, the girls and I went to Lollapalooza and next week I am taking them to the opera. Come to think of it, I think I started turning down the music when I had a relationship. I now remember that I used to fall asleep with music when I was a teenager.

A friend of a friend (with an amazing blog by the way) made me realize that moving to South America for me also coincided with my girls being more independent. I guess becoming a parent is such a busy and stressful time in the beginning that you no longer have time to do things for yourself. So to all my fellow mums out there: do something for yourself this evening. Take a hot bath. Pour yourself a glass of wine. Put on some tunes. Read a book.

Lingua Franca

I have learnt another language more than once in my life, for various reasons and with different degrees of success. In school, the French classes were not followed by choice, not met by enthusiasm and only later in life acknowledged as useful. German in school felt easy because it is so similar to Dutch but I would never claim I speak it. Latin? Same thing. Learning how to translate a text is by no means the same as speaking a language. English I seemed to have just picked up. (I think it is was because I was a key-under-the-doormat-child and I watched abnormal amounts of BBC?) Spanish was a very conscious choice, and I followed evening school because I wanted to. My motivation? I wanted to read Marquez in the original language. If even the translation is mesmerizing, then the original must be enchanting. I never managed by the way. His sentences are an average of eight lines long. But hey, I live in a Spanish speaking country so I guess I am still practicing. Swahili was a necessity, there was no communication possible any other way with some Tanzanians so we adapted.

The strangest realization I had so far is that along with grammar, you learn a bit of personality too. The intonation alone, the most common words, the word order.. it all contributes to another attitude. For instance, I find it much easier to get mad in one language than in the other. Also, this is why I believe Google translate doesn’t work. One would never say “this food is quite tasty” in Spanish, much better is the tasty “que rico!” I guess you could say polyglots become a bit schizophrenic in a way.

Even worse is it when you take over an accent. A habit I am particularly guilty of. My children do it too, depending on the teachers they have they will sound more British, American or Canadian. I would, however, never do that in my mother tongue tough.. I think. Then the dirty diphthongs and palatal a’s form my very distinct personality.

People often ask me what language I dream in. Honestly, I do not know. But I count in Flemish. Almost always anyway.